Thursday, 29 March 2012

155 VOEWOOD sunlight on wood with elastic band by ROGER ACKLING 2011


 Oxford Street is in distress. Roadworks are making bits of roads and pavements out of bounds to pedestrians. It’s a hot, noisy, sunny day in March and there are so many of us that it’s a problem to find a space for the next footstep. Instead turn down quiet and empty Dering Street to the Annely Juda gallery, push open the glass double doors and take the lift to the 3rd floor.  Step out and take a moment to puzzle out where the gallery door is. You spy a small handle in the white wall…

Inside is a magic space. Breathe in the calm and the light. It’s as if the artworks have subtly transformed the space they inhabit. I was told that the exhibition was curated and hung by the artist himself. Rippling across the walls are beautifully crafted sculptures, small scale, quiet and strong.  The image above shows a work which consists of 14 pieces and the overall mesurement is a mere 15.5 x 32 x 1.5cm.
Ackling belongs to a generation of artists who decided in the 60s that art could be anything they wanted it to be: in his case it is wood marked by the sun. He collects found objects such as driftwood,  clothes pegs, picture frames and transforms them by burning them with sunlight through a hand-held magnifying glass.  It is ‘an intense and meditative process: each mark, like a tiny sun, measuring the existence of a ray of light on its passage to earth from a source millions of miles away’.
The image on the right (45.5 x 30.5 x 4.3cm) may look like an abstract painting not a sculpture. It is of course wood burned by sunlight. And, unlike a painting, it does not hang flat against the wall. Which means that the sun plays its part for the second time in the here and now in the studio, creating shadows which gently move round in their own time.

‘Ackling’s work releases a renewed awareness of the small, the silent, the marginal, the overlooked’.  

Thursday, 22 March 2012


     TATE BRITAIN                                 Why am I writing a blog  using such a poor image? Because I think Martin Parr's work is too good to miss and images of higher resolution are understandably guarded by copyright. There's only one solution - go to Tate Britain to see it hanging on the wall or browse the internet.
It’s part of a series of photographs taken in 1983-5 at the height of the Thatcher years and, like her government, it caused controversy. The pictures are of holiday makers making the best of things at New Brighton, across the Mersey Estuary from Liverpool, at a time of economic decline, overcrowded beaches, bad  weather and junk food.
The young woman turning to face the camera doesn’t seem to like what she sees. Hand on her hip, gazing straight at us, she’s bored and defiant. Her lips, behind a startling frosted pink lipstick, are not about to smile.  No chance of a friendly chat. Penned in by the rail behind her is a crowd of jostling children buying ice cream. The oldest boy to the left is leaning over, money ready to pay for a clutch of dripping cones in his hand, each topped with ice cream of a stomach-churning green.  But he is not trying to catch the attention of those heavily mascaraed eyes. His own dreamy eyes are on her chest.
The pale translucent colour of the window behind makes the fluorescent jumble of biting colours stand out even more. On the table in the bottom left hand corner is a crooked metal table top smudged with blobs of melting ice cream. A grubby knife  is lying horizontally across the surface pointing to the girl. The only adult in the picture is barely visible. She’s on the extreme left, sliced out of the picture like a rasher of bacon.
Opinion was divided about The Last Resort. Was it a stunning satire on the state of Thatcherite Britain? Or was it cultural colonialism? Are the repulsive food and the mismatched clothes an arrogant take, inviting the viewer to be patronising? In other words, cheap fun? But some saw it as a defining watershed for British photography, not least because it broke many rules, including how to compose a picture and how to break with the tradition of an unrealistic, romantic view of the working classes.

Parr said, ‘I was rather surprised there was a controversy. It didn’t seem to me to be a controversial subject. It was a rundown seaside resort in Britain. What’s the surprise in that?’

I’m inclined to agree with those who see Parr’s work as ‘anthropological’, in the sense that he saw a bleak picture of urban deprivation and recorded it as an outsider, without judgement.  In so far as he offers a critique, it's of the culture not the people themselves.  
I like his empathy and humour. Commentators have remarked that the poise and steady gaze of the young girl recalls the barmaid in Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2 (Courtauld Institute of Art). Perhaps there’s also a tiny trace of Donald McGill’s seaside postcards too?
Three years after The Last Resort, Parr moved to Bristol and began the project that would later be published as The Cost of Living. There he poked fun at that other extreme of Thatcherite Britain – 'the yuppie hell of consumer-crazy, horribly perfect, starched-shirt and floral-dress brigades'.
Martin Parr: Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton, was published in 1986.
 Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography: how photography has changed our lives       Quadrille Publishing 2007


(c) Alison Jacques Gallery
We are used to portraits of remarkable people: kings, scientists, actors, politicians. They sit or stand still. High Wire is a portrait of a remarkable man - in action. Yass comments 'a portrait can make you feel quite secure. It says 'I'm here and you're there'. If you suddenly take that person away and leave an empty gap, all you're left with is a hole to fall into'.

In 2008 Catherine Yass persuaded  Didier Pasquette, the French high wire walker, to try to walk between two spectacularly tall 1960s tower blocks in Glasgow. You can see the remarkable events which followed in a perfect setting: three giant screens (3.6m x 4.8m) in a self contained room, dimly lit, octagonal, with a ravishing but reassuringly solid mosaic floor. It's the room where Mark Wallinger's unforgettable video Threshold to the Kingdom (Blog 53) was shown last year.

Alas, a still image can do little to convey the visceral experience of watching High Wire, which I did, my back pressed to the wall, keeping vertigo at bay. The cameras toss you around to follow Pasquette's progress from four different angles, including one from a small camera mounted on his helmet. (His helmet cannot be there for Health and Safety reasons...). He's walking in the air above an estate of  tall grey slabs, an adventurous social housing experiment built with indoor baths, central heating and aspirations of a better life for everyone.

Pasquette's walk, like the estate, does not turn out quite as was expected. He starts by walking fast, with confidence, then about half way across he wobbles and falters. 'Most people on the ground thought it was a test run and weren't alarmed', says Yass, ' but I heard him shouting so I knew he was worried. It was an awful moment'. He begins to retrace his steps, without looking backwards. All his skill is focused on aborting the project.

I learnt afterwards from the notes that high winds - heard with alarming veracity on the soundtrack - made Pasquette's walk too dangerous. He commented, 'It was a very short stroll. And we didn't have time to do it again. But that's life.'
(c) the artist
Tower blocks, alas, are now associated with fractured families, faceless neighbours, social unrest and poverty. Yass comments,' I was interested not only in the dream of walking in the air, but also a sort of broader, wider social dream. I was thinking about Utopias or dreams of better societies...'

Yass's work is rooted in the camera which we rely upon as an impartial recording instrument. But she can move the viewer into a strange place between reality and fantasy. She was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 2002. Lizzey Carey-Thomas, writing about her  in the Tate's 2002 book on the Turner, talks of 'a gap...a space always present at the centre...a space left vacant into which viewers con project their fears, fantasies, desires'.

There are some lovely images of her work on the internet.
Turner Prize 2002 book ISBN 1 85437 465 6

Sunday, 18 March 2012


'Photography isn't looking, it's feeling. If you can't feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures'.
Don McCullin, who currently has an exhibition at Tate Britain.

Family Matters:The Family in British Art is an ambitious touring exhibition  coming to Tate Britain in October, which demonstrates how the family is a challenging yet lasting subject for artists. I'm mentioning it now because you may like to get involved. It showcases works by British artists including Richard Billingham, Tracey Emin, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, David Hockney, Anthony van Dyck and Rachel Whiteread, as well as a international artists Thomas Struth and Zineb Sedirand. There are 5 sections:
 Inheritance, Childhood, Parenting, Couples & Kinship, Home They're expressed in a range of media: film, painting and sculpture as well as photography.

With this in mind, here's a message from Tate Britain:
Please send Tate Britain a photograph taken by you which encapsulates your idea of a family. A selection of your photos will be displayed in Family Matters: The Family In British Art. and your comments will inform the exhibition text.
Here's how:
  • website:            
  • email:               
  • post (with name)         Family Matters, Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG
  • your photograph must be received by May 6th
  • no entries will be returned
Here are two from our family album showing how ways of photographing children in 1912 and 1972
The Craig Brothers, Bedford (c) Richard Craig

'I can do a handstand', Polzeath, Cornwall (c) Yvonne Craig                     
For Don McCullam's display at Tate Britain see

Sunday, 11 March 2012


 21 Eastcastle Street

Every time I walk into a gallery and am surrounded by the work of a single artist, I know it’s the moment to slow down. Forget comparing and contrasting. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The sorely-missed critic Tom Lubbock wrote in the Independent of Alex Lowrey's ‘pale chalky colours, and his undemonstrative paint strokes. There is the softness and liquidity of his forms'.  He goes on to say that these factors 'give the work their specific character – isolated, obedient, vulnerable, defensive, clingy, giving’.

I think those six adjectives are as near as I can get in describing Lowery's work.
This is especially true of Lowery’s paintings of unexceptional seaside resorts, and some unpromising buildings which do not even have the glamour of being ugly. The artist chooses to eliminate the picturesque and to avoid scenes clamouring for attention. There are no titles, only a place name - West Bay or Portland - and a number. We have to be content with that. Paring down to the essentials is at the heart of Alex Lowery’s work: ‘I am drawn to the randomness, the awkwardness of West Bay. And yet there is a sort of cohesion... perhaps its very randomness is its integrity… it enables selection of the things you can use’.
Pink Wall
Lowery is a difficult artist to write about. Perhaps it’s significant that critics commenting on his work often draw comparisons with other artists. The American painter Edward Hopper is named as an influence. But one of the pleasures of Hopper is that the mesmeric emptiness of his pared down street or theatre is real enough to hint that you could walk into the picture. I don’t think Lowery's paintings allow that: they are too concentrated, too formal.
The critic, David Cohen, mentions the Italian Futurist artist, De Chirico. “West Bay has…become something quite marvellous in Lowery’s hands, like De Chirico’s Ferrara, an actual place, but every bit as unreal as an invented city… the town has been transformed quite simply, by being rendered as form'.                                                                   
But perhaps the Italian painter Morandi sheds most light. A still life painter, he limited his choice of subject to unremarkable bottles, boxes, jugs and vases.




Tuesday, 6 March 2012


Acoiris Head 60x50x20cm

The Metaphysics of Stone
 The Fine Art Gallery
148 New Bond St,
Berkeley Square 
Walking the streets of London, I look forward to being greeted by art works which are beautiful, provocative, witty, transparent, knowing, naive...and then one day I see something which makes time stand still.  Emily Young's work is in that category. Acoiris Head can be seen on the curling stairs of The Fine Art Society gallery in New Bond Street.

It's shocking not least because, like Greek and Roman sculptors, we usually prefer our statues to be made of sublime and flawless marble and limestone. It's true that in recent years we've become used to artists such as Marc Quinn challenging sculpture’s fixed ideas of what is natural or beautiful. And of what materials sculptors can use (he sculpted his  head in his own frozen blood). But when exploring the nude  his life size marble portraits at the V&A Give and Take exhibition still had surfaces which were pristine, dazzling white and unblemished; as was his monumental marble statue of a pregnant disabled woman seen on Trafalgar Square’s  fourth plinth in 2005.
But here the stone Young uses is riddled with flaws. Acoiris is a rare and complex variegated onyx from Mexico. The quarry where this particular piece came from was closed many years ago, and this material is no longer available. It's been described as the minestrone soup of the geological world. Fragments blown out of volcanoes, together with other bits and pieces deposited and aggregated by gravity, are chemically glued together by temperature and pressure over millions of years. Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, wrote an article about Young's work in the current edition of The Times, Eureka. I think that in England the nearest thing we have to ‘minestrone’ rock is found in the Cornish coastline and when I next go there I shall see it with new eyes.

Emily Young celebrates the faults, the veins and the splits of the material she's working with. Her sculptures have holes and cracks and wrinkles.   They are multi dimensional – you can see inside the skin of the rock. The result it tender and intimate. The flat images I'm showing cannot do justice to the subtlety and delight of a three dimensional piece, nor of the medley of soft yet vibrant colours. It has to be seen to be believed. 

There is a special delight in standing beside something which was billions of years in the making; which is, like us, deeply flawed; which cannot be melted down or washed away, but is just beginning new conversations with countless generations now and in the future.

Emily Young writes:
I carve in stone the fierce need in millions of us to retrieve some semblance of dignity for the human race in its place on Earth. We can show ourselves to posterity as a primitive and brutal life form - that what we are best at is rapacity, greed, and wilful ignorance, and we can also show that we are creatures of great love for our whole planet, that everyone of us is a worshipper in her temple of life.’
One reviewer of Young’s work wrote in a visitors’ book:
Tread silently here
And think softly
Lest you disturb the presences
That gaze back to the beginning
And look forward to the end.
Richard Twinch, Beshara News.

Saturday, 3 March 2012


                                                          The Barbican, the Curve
                  Photographs by Jane Hobson (c)            

 There was a time when digital cameras were new, and so was longhaul travel. Many a friendship was put to the test by invitations to come and view not a handful of jolly holiday snaps, but tens, even hundreds, of images of near-anonymous mountains and lakes and trees from foreign parts.

Seared by this experience, I did not expect to find Song Dong's exhibition  of over than 10,000 used household objects more than mildly interesting. It was a comfort to know that I was not a guest and could leave when I pleased. I need not have worried. Waste Not Want Not is poetic and powerful. As you reflect on it, several layers of appreciation emerge.

First there is the aesthetic experience of meandering along paths which thread their way through 'garden beds' of neatly arranged blankets and bottle tops (seen here), toothpaste tubes and toys, kitchen ladles and plastic bowls... The objects are  battered, yet exotic. They remind us of familiar shapes and usages but they do not belong to Western culture, and the script on the packaging or the objects themselves baffles most of us. 

Secondly the exhibition is a snapshot of Chinese history. The artist's mother used and then saved her household objects over a period of five decades. During times of economic and political turmoil saving and re-using - wu jin qu yang (waste not) - was a strategy for survival. Matters were not helped when, labelled a counter revolutionary, Song Dong's father was sent to a re-eduction camp.

Thirdly, it is a collection of physical 'memories' which  spell out family patterns of loyalty which are almost unimagineable to the outsider. The artist's mother fell into a deep depression on the death of her husband. Song Dong talks of 'her need to fill the space with those daily life objects more as a need to fill the emptiness after my father's death.'  By making a work expressing her life and philosophy, he provided her with a new purpose in life. 'It gave my mother a space to put her memories and her history in order'.When Waste Not Want Not was first shown it was a collaborative effort between the artist, his mother and his wife but his mother died in 2009. In 1997 the artist expressed his filial piety by making a film of his own hand over a film of his father, creating an intimacy which had not been possible in real time.

 It is  true to say that in our culture we have many elderly people who hoard valueless possessions, even to the point of making their homes unsafe or difficult to move around in. When things get to a crisis some talk of their affliction as Diogenes Syndrome. Opinion is divided as to whether they should be removed for safety's sake, or seen as people of right mind and independent spirit who must be allowed to choose where they die.  Waste Not Want Not makes us take a refeshing new look at our taken-for-granted-assumptions about old age. Jenny Gilbert's thoughtful review in The Independent is linked below.